Portugal is one of those places that ruins our future travel plans…because we just want to keep going back!
With so much of the world still to explore, we are definitely not making great headway if there was a list.
(Good thing this is a slow travel blog)
Read on, to find out more about why you will leave the country kicking and screaming.
When to go
You should know that I almost always recommend travelling in the off season!
I have a very low tolerance for crowds, so I avoid summer travel to popular places at all costs.
The shoulder season is an ideal time to visit Portugal, March/April or October/November, and you should still have good weather, at least in the south!
Portugal never gets very cool by Canadian standards, and remains a mild 11 – 19 Celsius (52 – 66 F) in the winter. So while it won’t be tanning weather, it’s still very pleasant.
Minimum 2 days
Before you get too upset about a “slow travel” itinerary that suggests only two days in Portugal’s capital city, I promise we will circle back!
Lisbon is a natural place to start, because most international flights will arrive in Lisbon.
Sure, you could get a ticket to Porto and start in the north, but I would save myself the layover (most likely in Lisbon) and just start here.
Check out my full Lisbon itinerary:
Assuming you are coming from far, the first day/night after your arrival is probably best spent having a meal and going to sleep.
If you arrive quite early, then a stroll through the city centre would be a nice welcome.
Your second day in Lisbon will really be your first actual day, so spend it having a wander!
Lisbon is incredibly walkable, and it has a great metro system.
Here is a list of some ideas for easy things to do without needing to plan. This is an opportunity for you to decide how long you will want to spend in Lisbon later.
Ideas For Things to do in Lisbon
This beautiful train station is equal parts “something to see” and convenient.
The attached shopping centre “Centro Vasco de Gama” has everything you could need, and restaurants with a view on the top floor.
The Oceanarium is a large aquarium, with very impressive tanks, close to Oriente Station.
The Lisbon cable car south station is right outside of the Oceanarium.
This is my favourite “day time” area of Lisbon.
All three of these stops are a very short walk from one another and all are fun things to do.
Strolling the City Centre
In the evenings the Lisbon old town comes alive. Everyone comes out to stroll the streets and have a nice dinner.
Sounds of live music fill the air. It’s a perfect spot to immerse yourself in Portugal, and the full slow travel experience.
Santa Justa Lift
This elaborate steel elevator has a viewing platform over the city centre.
One of Lisbon’s more famous buildings, the roof of this Gothic convent is open to the stars.
Lisbon’s Pink Street
You might have seen it on Instagram, it’s literally a pink street!
There are other things to see and do in Lisbon, but nothing that I consider a “must-see.”
If you want to know more about Lisbon, read all the details here!:
For me personally, two days upon arrival and one or two days later on, would be plenty of time for Lisbon.
There are so many amazing places in Portugal, and if I’m going to settle in for a while, it just wouldn’t be in Lisbon.
There are other people who love it and would live there in a heartbeat. For me, I am looking for that Je ne sais quoi – the X factor.
(Again, I do like it and it is worth a visit.)
Day 3 – Take as much time as you want in Lisbon, then hop on a train and journey all the way up north to Porto!
From here, I won’t tell you what days to do things on. I will suggest how many days to spend somewhere and you can decide how best to allocate your time.
2 – 3 Days – Weather dependant
Porto is a large city in Portugal’s north. It’s usually brought up right after Lisbon in terms of places to go.
I can only speak from my own experience, which is why I would give Porto 2 to 3 days, weather dependant. When I went, the weather sucked.
It rained and rained and rained. Our hotel room had mildew on the walls and terrible wifi. One of the cafe’s we went to served us a pastry that was extremely old and rancid. (I can still see it clearly and cringe at the thought!)
Porto is one of those places that I wanted to love and it just wasn’t fun.
I can however, separate all that bad luck from the city itself, and I would really like to give it another chance!
Central Porto is not as walkable as Lisbon (or other Portuguese old towns for that matter!) It is very hilly, and requires a LOT more effort to get around on foot.
For that reason, you should definitely try to get accommodation close to the sights that you most want to see. While Porto does have a metro, coverage in the centre is not great.
This is the big reason that a trip to Porto is weather dependant. It is a lot of walking, so if the weather is miserable, there’s not as much to do.
The fanciest McDonald’s in the universe, as voted by me.
Douro River Cruise
Take a Douro River cruise to see the six bridges that join both sides of Porto.
This colourful riverside area evokes images of Cinque Terre, but without the insane crush of tourists.
Port Tasting Tour
Book a port tasting at one of Porto’s famous port wine breweries, and learn the history of this delicious drink!
If you want to know more about Porto, read all the details here!:
Often overlooked as a “day trip” from Porto, this little town is one of my favourites in Portugal!
In stark contrast to our experience in Porto, Guimaraes rained the whole time and still managed to be delightful!
Imagine it in the sun…
Guimaraes is a perfect slow travel destination because on paper, there isn’t that much to see. It’s the atmosphere that invites you to stay a while.
Book a little room in the old town and stay within the walls as much as possible. You can picture exactly what life was like back in the day, but with the delight of modern restaurants.
The siesta is alive and well in Guimaraes. Not much is open in the mid afternoon.
In the off season, the town is quiet.
Named the European capital of culture in 2012, I expected Guimaraes to be overrun by now.
It seems that instead, people let it slip in their memories, and a decade later it is as magical as ever.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things to do in Guimaraes. Here are some of the top sites:
A large medieval brick castle, dating back to the 10th century.
Palace Duques de Bragança
The “Palace of the Duke’s of Braganza” is a medieval estate, furnished for the time period.
Museu Alberto Sampaio
Former church (now museum) with beautiful grounds.
Largo da Oliveira
The main square in the old town. You will pass this sight many times during your stay, and it is *chef’s kiss.*
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira
The Gothic church that makes the main square special.
Minimum 2 days
Something you will learn about Portugal, is that tourists tend to overlook anything away from the coast.
If you really want to get lost and find your own slice of paradise, heading into the countryside is a great place to start!
Castello Branco has a nice atmosphere, and a few sights that shouldn’t be missed. Bonus: It’s probably the least touristy place on this itinerary!
Bishop’s Palace Garden
An amazing Baroque garden near the historic centre. This alone is worth the trip to the town, in my opinion.
A garden like this isn’t something you come across often.
A ruined castle from the middle ages that overlooks the town.
Barrocal Nature Park (Parque da Barrocal)
A fairly new nature park with boardwalks and stunning views over the city.
Castelo Branco Old Town
The old town of Castelo Branco seems small in comparison to other Portuguese towns, but it’s narrow winding alleys make up for the lack of size.
This is right up there with my favourite historical centres. Be warned though, it is quiet.
The lack of shops, cafes, and inhabitants is equal parts good and bad. There aren’t many places to stop and enjoy the old town, but it’s an interesting atmosphere.
We did visit in the off-season though, as we always do, so it’s possible that summer is a little busier.
I tend to think that Castelo Branco is always pretty quiet.
I suggest leaving a block of time open for this sweet town, in case you want to stay and enjoy the atmosphere for longer.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Street Cart
It may be different where you’re from, but chestnuts are very much a foreign food where I hale from. Chestnuts are only roasting in the Christmas carols we sing!
In Castelo Branco (and probably other parts of Portugal) in the winter there were many street vendors roasting chestnuts and selling them to passers by.
I actually didn’t end up liking them, but still that was a cultural delight for me.
Minimum 3 days
Creeping ever closer to Lisbon now, the towns of Fatima and Batalha (next on the list!) are close enough together that you should choose one to stay at, and make a trip to the other.
I would personally pick Fatima, because it’s a little larger and has a very unique atmosphere.
Fatima’s Holy History
You can’t really know what to expect in Fatima unless you know a little of the backstory.
It is said that in 1916 an angel appeared to three shepherd children and taught them some prayers and told them to pray the Rosary.
Next, in 1917, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to the children several times, making prophesies of the future. The prophesies have since been correlated with major events, such as WWII.
The Catholic church eventually endorsed these visions, and the town became a pilgrimage site.
Thus, the very unique atmosphere.
I have never been somewhere of religious significance to so many people, and I just found it so interesting.
Candles and memorabilia are available in the shops all over town, and the main square is very busy.
Everyone in Fatima seems to come with the same purpose, and they will assume that you do too. It’s quite fun, that sense of unity.
Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima
This “shrine” is actually a very large open square constructed at the site that the visions were said to have occurred.
Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary
The original church in the shrine, is a beautiful basilica on the far end of the square.
Chapel of the Apparitions
The Chapel of the Apparitions is built on the exact spot of the miracles. It is a glass breezeway of sorts, with an actual shrine inside where people can light candles. There is often a long line to get in.
Basilica of the Holy Trinity
The Basilica of the Holy Trinity sits opposite of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, on the same square. This 9,000 capacity concrete megachurch was constructed when the other Basilica became too small.
There is a large piece of the Berlin Wall off to one side of the shrine. It seems that one of the prophesies had to do with the fall of communism, so it was donated by a German expat as a gift.
Just another of Fatima’s quirks!
Fatima is one of those places that we were actually visiting out of convenience, but it warrants some time. If you have unlimited time, I think you could hang out for 5 – 7 days and enjoy yourself.
Tiny Batalha is the smallest town on this list, with just over 8,500 residents.
If I had unlimited time, I still might like to spend a couple days there, seeing what it’s all about, but a day trip does the job well enough.
This Gothic Monastery is truly one of the most impressive structures I have ever seen. The details inside and out are breathtaking, as are the tombs of Portugal’s past royalty, which rest here.
Like other little points of interest in the country, the access here is unprecedented. There is very little in the way of ropes and barricades. You could reach out and touch the tombs if you wanted to.
Grutas de Mira de Aire (Mira d’Aire Caves)
These caves are technically between Batalha and Fatima, so you can visit from either.
Grutas de Mira de Aire is the largest cave system in Portugal (which is actually saying something, because there are quite a few!)
If you like caves, you will appreciate an hour or so spent here.
Back to Lisbon
Minimum up to you!
You already know the top things to do in Lisbon, so now is your chance to spend a lot longer here if you want to, or not!
You have some choices here, because Sintra is the next stop, and only 50 minutes by train.
3 days minimum
There are plenty of blog posts out there that tell you how to make a day trip to Sintra, the land of fairytale castles.
I CANNOT lie to you.
You will never, but never, see all of Sintra in a day trip from Lisbon.
There is just no way to see all of the main stops in one day, and I don’t even mean because you should take more time.
Between the train rides, opening hours, and transit times between, you will have to make a short list.
Even then, you would probably miss out.
The problem with whatever you cut out, is that the magical places in Sintra are truly worth spending the time.
To stay in Lisbon for a few days and try to do Sintra in one is completely backwards.
There isn’t anything in Lisbon that I would choose over the AMAZINGNESS that is Sintra.
How to Visit Sintra and Lisbon at the Same Time
Okay, now that I’ve tried convincing you to spend the time in Sintra, there is a way to get the best of both…if you like trains.
We decided to stay in Sintra to beat some of the crowds in the morning, plus have somewhere to take a break during the day.
Then when Sintra closed up at night, we headed into Lisbon for the evening to have dinner and walk around.
For us this worked incredibly well, and the train ride is interesting and doesn’t seem that long.
You could always do the opposite, and head to Sintra in the morning and stay in Lisbon at night, but there is the downside of not resting during the day.
(Of course there are restaurants, benches, and other ways to rest your legs!)
Exactly what the name implies! These are the ruins of an 8th century Moorish castle made of stone bricks.
Even though it’s in ruins, the exterior walls are still very well preserved.
An eccentric multi-coloured and multi-style castle built in 1854 for King Ferdinand II.
The palace grounds with lush gardens and a million places to hide are the real story here.
Another site where the grounds are absolutely amazing! The house is an impressive gothic manor, but the setting is full of secret tunnels, the famous ritualistic well, water features, and other surprising structures.
Convent of the Capuchos
A medieval convent in the mountains of Sintra. This isn’t a glamorous “convent.” It’s a few simple structures, and tiny cell-like rooms.
(To illustrate my point about time, I have been to Sintra twice, once for two days, and then for three, and still have not made it to this convent.)
Palace of Monserrate
This “palace” is actually an estate, built in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. Again the mansion is interesting, but the gardens and outbuildings take time to explore.
A simple looking palace from the outside, with a much larger interior full of interesting items from the time.
See what I mean? There is just so much to see. I don’t know if there is a bigger concentration of castles in a tiny area anywhere else in the world.
Don’t skimp on Sintra!
Sometimes referred to as just “Algarve, Portugal” as if it is a town, the Algarve is a fairly large region in the south of the country.
I’m about to list my favourite spots in the Algarve, and if you plan to stay for a while, I would recommend you choose one place to stay for a longer period of time.
From there you can explore the region and not have to worry about packing up all the time.
If you find a spot you like better, then you can switch your accommodation and spend more time there instead!
The Algarve is where your “travels” really kick into vacation mode. The pace of life is slower and there aren’t as many must-see historical sights. It’s all about beaches and going for strolls here.
The city of Faro is a great first stop on your trip through the Algarve. It is easy to get a train to, and easy to book a rental car.
You can also fly to Faro if you are coming from further away.
For most people, this is the extent of their trip to Faro. It’s a hub for other vacation spots.
We actually really like Faro. It’s a pretty authentic working class town in Portugal. It fronts the water, but it isn’t a beach town.
Faro is on an inlet, so the waterfront is a marina, and not the stretches of sand that you might be thinking of.
Faro Old Town
Yet another old town worth exploring!
That has to be the best part of travelling through Portugal: Each city seems to have an old town, and no two are alike.
Faro is surprisingly not very touristy for it’s location. Yes there are tourists, but not many seem to be sticking local. Wandering the old town is fun, and not too busy.
Chapel of Bones
Out behind the beautiful old church “Igreja do Carmo” is a small chapel of bones. There are others in Portugal, and this is second in fame to a much larger one in Evora.
The chapel is a quick visit, and equal parts jarring and interesting.
There are a number of other churches and interesting buildings you will stumble across if you take some time in the old town, but by this point in the trip you may be quite tired of them!
It’s very rare that I will mention a shopping centre, but Forum Algarve is an exception!
This open air mall is a very relaxing place to get lunch and sit around while the kids play.
If you want to do some shopping, Faro is a good place for it. You probably won’t see the same price gouging as other places in the Algarve.
I didn’t specify a minimum amount of time for Faro, because you can, and most people do, take only an afternoon here. There’s not a lot you have to see.
If you are on unlimited time however, this pleasant seaside city might just ask you to stay.
Minimum 3 days (We could live there)
If we’re going down the list of towns in the Algarve, Lagos is our #1.
I’m sure high season Lagos can get pretty crazy, and it has a reputation for being a party town. Low season Lagos however, is quiet and very friendly.
For us, Lagos strikes the perfect balance of touristy without going overboard.
There are a lot of conveniences that come with tourism, such as ample parking, and a higher concentration of restaurants. In the winter, you can enjoy all of that without the crowds.
We do like an authentic experience, but Lagos is a bit of a guilty pleasure.
Lagos Old Town
Like most towns in Portugal, Lagos has an attractive historical centre, full of old world charm.
The old town here is a pretty good size, and is very walkable!
You won’t struggle to find a delightful apartment in the old town during the off season. Last time we stayed in one with a view out onto an orange tree in a quiet square.
There are quite a few restaurants in this part of Lagos, but not all are open year round.
The old town of Lagos is across from an attractive and busy marina. You can stroll the whole length of it on a nice flat path.
Lagos is a good choice if you are looking for a beach destination.
There are a number of jaw-dropping beaches in the area, some of which you can walk to from the old town!
Fortaleza da Ponta da Bandeira
Also within walking distance of the old town is the historical fort that used to guard Lagos.
Still in very good condition, this 17th century fort boasts a small museum and a drawbridge.
Another one of those touristy perks, is that you can book a number of excursions from the marina.
You can take a pirate ship ride, a boat to Lagos’ famous caves, and go see dolphins!
As far as towns in Portugal go, there aren’t a lot of blockbuster sites here. That’s almost what makes it such a great spot for slow travel, because it’s about the pleasant atmosphere, and little things to do.
Since this is a slow travel blog, I don’t often recommend day trips, but a lot of the Algarve is very close together, so there is no need to stay in each town.
Albufeira is one of those places that is worth a visit, but not a top choice for places to stay.
This seaside town is by far the most “touristy” spot on this list. Sintra may also have huge crowds, but Albufeira seems to be tailor made as a tourist town.
That’s not always a bad thing!
If you have accessibility needs, or there are older people in your party, then Albufeira may be a good choice for you. You can even take an elevator down to the beach!
Formally known as Praia dos Pescadores, the main beach in Albufeira is really spectacular, and the main reason to visit.
It’s huge, and lies at the bottom of tall cliffs. (Thus they put in the escalator and elevator for tourist’s convenience.)
You can walk directly from the old town onto the beach to watch the sunset.
Albufeira Old Town
You would think that a more popular tourist spot would have more things open year round, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Albufeira. In the off season most restaurants are closed.
Like other parts of Portugal, the old town is worth walking through, but it isn’t as special as other ones. It feels a lot more commercial.
If you don’t watch the sunset from the beach, definitely watch it from the cliffs above. There is a spectacular view waiting for you just up the escalator.
I know we’re getting kitschy now, but the Albufeira tourist train is a modern convenience that you shouldn’t skip. For just 1 euro it will take you to all the important spots (so mainly the beach and the shopping centre.)
Mostly though, it’s just good fun.
Now the bad with Albufeira: It seems to attract a different crowd. A more entitled, less friendly crowd. I don’t know why that would be, but it doesn’t have the happy chill vibes of the other places on this list.
We visited the town of Silves purely by chance! We were driving through the Algarve and saw the castle walls in the town and decided to check it out.
Silves is walkable because it is pretty small, but it is built on a hill!
This little town is actually inland a bit, so even though it does seem to cater a bit to tourists, I doubt it gets as busy as other towns that are on the beach.
Silves Old Town
Silves is probably the most picturesque little old town that we visited. It’s a little more colourful than others, and the hills make for good views (and pictures!)
Silves is also squeaky clean, and seems to have put more thought into their plant choices for public areas.
The Silves Castle is an interesting dark red-brown, and the walls are still in very good condition.
From the castle you will get the most instagrammable shots of the town and valley.
Silves can easily be meandered in a few hours, but I would really like to stay next time! Opening a window in the morning onto the old cobbled streets would be delightful.
Portimao is probably the most modern town on this list. It has a lot of newer construction and it looks like more of a resort city.
The reason Portimao makes the list, is because of it’s location. A large portion of the city is built close to the cliffs and beaches, which are the best in Portugal (in my opinion.)
We travel on a budget, so to be able to afford a vacation rental with a view, that is also walking distance to the beach, is the dream.
Portimao would be a good place to stay if you don’t want to rent a car.
It’s pretty central, has modern conveniences, good transit links, and a lot of beach within walking distance.
You can comfortably see all the places on this list in about three weeks.
If you can’t spend that long, you should decide if you want to:
- Travel from Porto/Guimaraes back towards Lisbon/Sintra, with stops in Castello Branco and/or Fatima
- Travel from Lisbon/Sintra and head south through the Algarve.
Both are great choices and would give you an amazing taste of Portugal. This country is one where the more time you have to spend, the better!
I honestly think I could spend a year in Portugal and still find new towns to explore.
If you plan to visit this European dream, try to remember that you can always come back, and don’t rush the journey!